The other afternoon I managed to convince a local restaurant owner to drive me to several coal brick production facilities here in Ya’an. These shops, which are often in the middle of town are simply redistributors of the same coal that is mined near the province capital, Chengdu. Often a one man operation, they purchase large quantities of coal, break it down into a coarse powder and compress it into the honeycomb cakes seen in these pictures. You can see the delivery carts buzzing all around town and in the cities outskirts. The cart operators are easily recognized by a stained black outfit and a pyramid shaped stack of coal in tow.
Although local coal is used for multiple purposes besides personal use, it all originates from the same coal mine and should, in theory, contain the same amount of mercury. This makes collecting samples fairly easy since its being delivered to everyones front door. In planning this study, the idea was to sample several provinces along the way from Sichuan to Hebei. In doing so, we will be able to map the amount of mercury and compare these results to those previously established.
This is just the first tier of a three part study. To briefly explain, we are analyzing coal for Hg from several provinces, and collecting bamboo and panda hair in Ya’an to perform a similar analysis. This creates a complete cycle for the path that Hg takes in the Chinese environment. From a natural toxic resource to a biomagnified chemical found in tissues. Here is a very rough idea of the process to help explain-
1)Mined coal is burnt and gives off Hg gas and particulates
2)Gas and particulates settle back into and on food sources such as bamboo
3)As living organisms ingest these foods, Hg builds up or bioaccumulates
If you can analyze for Hg at each step, then you can measure several components including the bioaccumualation factor, province and geographical differences, diet influences, etc.
We are concerned about Hg for a whole slew of reasons, but the objective of this project is the health of our study species, the giant panda. This research has been meticulously done on human beings, and especially in China. But is has never been done for Panda Bears and could shed some light on reproductive efforts and aid in building a more sustainable wild population. After all analyses for Hg have been done, we should be able to recommend a few options for reducing the total Hg in Pandas and other species in China.
So far, we are off to a great start. Each part of this study require a permit from both the United States and China. Coal and bamboo are easy to obtain but still take quite a bit of legwork. Panda hair on the other hand is near impossible. Not going into too much detail, its easiest to explain by saying it takes several months, letters of intent, phone calls, money, and a copious amount of paperwork. The task of collecting the panda hair is still to come and presents its own interesting challenges.